Friday, February 15, 2013

Lazy Ways to Keep The Reader Hooked - The Dan Brown Secret


Guest post by John Yeoman

‘My life began when I murdered my grandfather and was arrested for improper behaviour with an ostrich.’

How can we fail to read on? When we write a story, it’s not difficult to hook the reader in the first line. Any intriguing puzzle, high moment of drama or magical touch of wordplay will get them started. The challenge is to keep the reader enthralled in our story beyond the first page.

Try this simple strategy to engage your reader from start to finish. It’s also a tested way to gain a cash prize in a top writing award.

Many a story starts with a thunderclap and ends with an earthquake but it has a long dry desert in the middle. Elizabethan dramatists didn’t bother too much about this. Ben Jonson once remarked that his audience would slip out for an ale after the first Act and only return in the last Act to enjoy the traditional bawdy jig. So there was no need to work hard on the middle, he said.

You can’t afford such complacency in a modern story. Readers will put your story down and never come back. They’ll not buy from you again.

1. Inject Uncertainty

Every episode of your story, and certainly every chapter, must end with a gentle scene hanger. It doesn’t have to be lurid. But it must tempt the reader to turn the page. It’s also a sure-fire way to impress the judges of a story writing contest.

The simplest scene hanger is to maintain a tone of uncertainty at all times. (The term ‘suspense’ literally means ‘to hang, suspended’.) Nothing is ever quite completed. At the end of every scene, the circumstances beg for explanation. The future seems always ominous or, at least, unpredictable.

If the main plot-line appears to be emphatically finished, the reader will simply put down the book.

2. Use Foreghostings

A simple way to achieve this tenor of uncertainty is to drop in ‘foreghostings.’ These are more subtle than ‘foreshadowings.’ They’re hints of future events that the astute reader will spot but the principal characters might not.

Dan Brown has mastered this trick of suspense. His success suggests that maintaining suspense is what readers principally demand of commercial fiction.  The Dan Brown secret is very simple: he incessantly shifts the scene to another scene just before the first scene reaches a climax. And in the prior scene he foreghosts each scene to come.

Scene, in this sense, means a single unit of action. To ‘change a scene’ usually means changing the characters and/or location. In Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, there are no fewer than 133 chapters. Each is a major scene. Within those scenes there are often several minor scenes, short episodes that switch back and forwards between characters or locations.

For example, the novel starts with Prof Langdon having been called to give an important lecture at the Smithsonian Institute. He’s racing to get there by 7pm when the lecture begins. The lift is slow. Will he make it?

The question acts as a foreghosting. We know that something odd is about to happen.

He gets to the door at 7pm exactly, straightens his tie breathlessly and walks in with a smile. And he stops. The scene closes with his thoughts: ‘Something is very, very wrong’.

What could be wrong? The reader has to wait for an answer.

The novel then cut to another scene, a teasingly long description of the Smithsonian’s architecture. Meanwhile, the reader is lusting to know: what was so wrong about the lecture room?

3. Cut A Scene Before the Climax

Just when the reader’s patience is at a breaking point, Dan Brown’s story cuts back to Prof Langdon. He’s still looking at the room. It’s empty. His invitation to the conference has been a hoax. But who is the hoaxer? And why has he done this?

Brown’s gambit is to cut a scene just before a moment of high tension, switch to a long episode of dry description or seemingly irrelevant dialogue to tease the reader, and then return to the moment of high drama. It’s like a tango: one step forward, three steps back.

The reader soon learns to expect this formula. Brown’s skill is in persuading the canny reader that, nonetheless, the revelation will be worth the wait. His revelations are usually unpredictable and even more interesting than the reader expected.

Of course, there are many ways to sustain suspense in a story but the Dan Brown tango is a proven formula. Apply it to a story that’s even better written than The Lost Symbol and you’ll have a winner.

What techniques do you use in your story to keep the tension high?

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:
http://www.writers-village.org/story-class

Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humour, some of them intended to be humorous.


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10 Things Every Literary Hero Needs
Checklist for Self-Editing



6 comments:

  1. A clear, well-written guideline, John (and astute analysis of the Dan Brown - and JK Rowling - method). It's important for all fiction writers to remember to keep that tension up, especially through the sagging middle of a story or novel.

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  2. Ditto John and Magdalena! But I think it depends on how long and boring that subsequent scene is...I get impatient with those and tend to skim over them.

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  3. Oh, I love "lazy" ways. It's as good as "frugal." Maybe it is frugal. Frugal of time. Thank you for this nice reminder, John!
    Best,

    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

    Excited about how much the new edition of the Frugal Book Promoter (expanded! updated!) can help writers with the tried and true and the new media, too. Now a USA Book News award-winner in its own right (www.budurl.com/FrugalBkPromo) it the original edition was also a Reader Views winner and an Irwin Award winner.

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  4. Some very good suggestions here. Thanks for an interesting post!

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  5. Thanks, Carolyn. I love 'frugal'. A site owner once ticked me off for submitting a guest post that began 'Seven Lazy Ways...' We don't want our readers to be lazy, she said. Maybe I should have titled it 'Seven Time-Frugal Ways...'? :)

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  6. Very informative post. Thanks John. Shared it.

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